So this is what Captain Cook felt like: I’m headed toward one of the most remote parts of the world; twelve ancient volcanoes that form a far-flung archipelago called the Marquesas Islands. It’s a place where everything is on a grand scale; you can find a ‘wall’ of up to 700 sharks in one spot, a waterfall taller than Auckland’s Sky Tower and a way of life that is shrouded in an equal amount of mystery and mystique.
Okay, so full disclosure: this is not quite Captain Cook. I’m aboard a luxury cruise ship, complete with a swimming-pool-size cellar of fine wine. White-gloved butlers in black suits are buzzing around the ship – while I’m writing this they are bringing fresh grapes to our suite. Apparently, there are more than 500 refrigerated bags below deck. There won’t be any scurvy here. Champagne is being chilled in an ice bucket on our veranda, and we’re waiting for fresh scallops to be delivered by room service.
We’re on one of the most beautiful cruise trips there is, from Hawaii to Tahiti, and doing it in serious style – aboard the six-star Regent Seven Seas Mariner. This is an epic two-week itinerary; we’ll be at sea for four days to reach French Polynesia, then we’ll explore the far-reaches of the archipelago. These are places that most people have never heard of, let alone dream of one day visiting.
Rewind to the start of the trip in Waikiki, and we’re sipping cocktails and juggling a seemingly endless supply of canapés on the top deck of the ship, as the pulsing skyline of Honolulu fades into the distance. I’ve already ducked below deck to look around and accidentally come across the gym. Ha! Good try. Running out of Champagne is my cardio.
* 5 cruises that are not the norm
* Norway’s Lofoten Islands: Cruising the most beautiful place on Earth
* A to Z: Cruising the Marquesas and the islands of French Polynesia
I quickly get lost in the labyrinth of cocktail bars, restaurants and a grand foyer that stretches seven floors – with glass elevators gliding gracefully up the side. The ship is small by cruise standards – just 700 guests – and it’s recently emerged from a $185 million makeover. We’re in the ship’s smallest room category, but in true Regent style, it’s big: complete with a marble-appointed bathroom, a separate walk-in-wardrobe, lounge and balcony. Our fellow cruisers are mostly North American retirees, but there are a few younger couples also joining the trip of a lifetime.
Floating palace aside, there is nothing quite like waking up and not knowing what the view from the bed will be. Our first daybreak revealed the biggest mountain in the world, its peak glowing pink in the first light of the day. I know what you’re thinking: did you drink too much Champagne and are now in some sort of hallucinatory grape depression imagining the ship is floating around the oceanless Himalayas? No, that didn’t happen. Our first stop is best known as The Big Island (or officially Hawai’i) and it’s a vast volcanic wonderland; a place where the planet creates itself in front of your eyes.
It was home to the devastating Kilauea lava flows earlier this year, and is also where you’ll find the biggest mountain in the world, Mauna Kea. Let me qualify that before you start racing to Google. Yes, Mount Everest is the tallest at more than 19,000 feet above sea level. But when you measure Mauna Kea from where she starts, at the bottom of the ocean, right to the peak – she’s more than 33,000 feet in total. By far the biggest.
That night, the ship headed towards French Polynesia, with four full days at sea until we saw land again. What followed was four days of decadence. Regent proudly states it’s the most inclusive luxury cruise in the world, and I was sure to do everything I could to test that. From Champagne and caviar in the morning, freshly cooked pastries, fine dining restaurants, barista coffee, handmade gelato – everything is on a grand scale. And it’s all included in the price. When they say 24-hour room service, you can order lobster to your suite at 3am if your overnight crustacean levels need an emergency boost. Then there are the nightly shows featuring acts such as a Grammy-nominated saxophone player or lavish productions featuring the ship’s dancers and orchestra. Waiters even buzz around the theatre filling up wine glasses between acts.
Four days, and a few belt buckle sizes later, we spotted our first land – the towering silhouette of Nuku Hiva, one of French Polynesia’s most remote islands and home to the capital of the Marquesas. This is a Jurassic and rocky land, almost completely untouched by the modern world. The island has vast mountains that almost look as if they’re falling into the ocean; the force of nature here over the years has been extraordinary.
We’re taken up to Taipivai Valley, home to an enormous waterfall – higher than the Sky Tower. Horses roam free, and smiles from the locals roam even freer as we stop at a village for a feast of fruit. Seeing foreigners in this part of the world is rare, seeing a group of 30 of us is a spectacle the entire village is invited to.
We then sailed for two days to an idyllic sandy atoll called Fakarava. Unlike the towering Nuku Hiva, the highest point here is less than a metre off the ground. We spend the day falling asleep under a coconut tree, jumping in and out of the topaz waters to cool down. This place is legendary in the diving world – it’s a UNESCO underwater reserve. At an entrance to the atoll, around 700 sharks feast on thousands of grouper that gather to breed.
Bora Bora, our next stop, I’ll remember forever. As our ship sailed into the lagoon, framed against its iconic soaring peaks, the couple in front of us started to cry and hug. After a poignant moment, they turned to us and explained they’d always dreamed of coming here. And what was to unfold that day, didn’t disappoint. While Bora Bora is home to almost impossible beauty above water, below the surface it’s equally mesmerising: it’s nature’s sunken garden. We opted for a shark and stingray snorkel, which was nowhere near as scary as it sounds. The small sharks are afraid of you, and the stingrays in the lagoon are almost like labradors of the sea with their ultra-friendly and gentle nature. If you prefer to keep the blood pressure in check, there are plenty of other options like spending the day on a private island.
The next few days included magnificent trips to the islands of Raiatea, and Moorea – with more snorkel stops, private beach days, and a visit to the island of Taha’a, that produces so much vanilla you can smell it as soon as you step off the jetty. The choice of free tours each day was astounding: from a luxury catamaran trip around the lagoon complete with drinks and nibbles to a photography tour by jeep up into the mountains.
By the time we docked in Tahiti, our final stop, a lot of us were devising a way to become stowaways – we didn’t want it to end. It’s a cruise – I’ll quite literally – take with me forever. Yes, that’s because I’m carrying a few more kilos, a constant reminder of the time I tried to become a modern-day Captain Cook.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises operate four ships to more than 450 destinations. Each cruise is all-inclusive (we didn’t spend a cent) and covers all dining, beverages (apart from ultra-premium wines and spirits) dozens of free excursions, room service and gratuities.
Next year Regent will offer a number of cruises that include French Polynesia. As a rough guide, prices start from $570 – $700 per person, per day.
A very similar cruise to the one mentioned above departs 15 January 2021 and prices start from $10,450 per person for the trip. See: www.rssc.com
The writer was a guest of Regent Seven Seas Cruises.